Ear Training for “tech” kids

I have to start with an apology for this ‘click-baity’ title. As much as possible I don’t try to differentiate my students between those that are ‘techy’ and those that are not. Or even worse… the tech vs classical kids. I truly believe that incorporating a variety of tools such as recording software, MIDI sequencing, sample libraries, etc can be useful for ALL students, no matter the genre they want to specialise in.

That being said, in our current (and soon to disappear) high school assessment system the students that have not been strong music notation readers have been at a massive disadvantage and have not adequately had their aural skills improved. The dwindling numbers of students sitting the level 1-3 aural exams demonstrates that teachers are not seeing the point in getting students to sit the exam if reading music is not part of their daily practice as musicians. The orchestra or jazz band kid has a massive advantage over the singer/songwriter or rock kid who is too busy reciting “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” in their head while trying to work out the direction of a melody.

So, what should we be doing for those students who are not the ‘notation reading’ students? Here are a few tools that you might find useful to help students develop their ear in identifying pitches, tone and timbre.

Syntorial – https://www.syntorial.com

This is a great tool which teaches you about synthesis. It breaks down all the parts of a synthesizer and shows you how they generate and manipulate sound bit by bit. But the clever part of this training programme is that after it introduces a new part of a synth, it tests you on how to use it in an ear test where you must match the given sound with sounds that you manipulate.

So not only are students learning how a synthesizer works (which means this is fantastic for doing Level 3 Unit Standard 32304 – Operate a Music Sequencing Application) they are also making their ear more sensitive to changes in timbre (after all, timbre is a musical element just as important as melody, harmony, or rhythm… isn’t it?).

This obviously has great benefits for students who are composing in genres that use synthesisers (which is pretty much all modern ‘commercial’ related genres) but I also find this great for students completing Achievement Standard 91422 – Analyse a Substantial Music Work. I don’t have all the class study the same set work, instead they choose their own works to study. For those analysing something in a modern genre it is a requirement for them to recreate the sounds, which means finding ways to recreate the synth sounds using the software instruments available in our DAW’s such as GarageBand and Logic Pro. Syntorial, is a fantastic tool for helping them understand how to adjust the parameters of a synth to match the sounds from the recordings their analysing. And it helps them to do it all by ear.

Syntorial does cost money, but the first 40 or so lessons are free, which is all I’ve ever used with my students.

Quiztones – https://theproaudiofiles.com/quiztones/

There are a few apps available for iOS, Android and Mac/PC but this is my favourite. When trying to mix a song we try and blend the tone of various instruments to make sure we don’t get a build-up of too many frequencies making something sound ‘boxy’, or ‘muddy’, or ‘harsh’ or ‘sibilant’. The ability to quickly recognise those frequencies, assign a number to them (such as a ‘honking’ sound being between 500-1000 Hz) and then pull those frequencies out with an EQ is an essential skill for a good sound mixer (or basically anyone who is composing and producing their own music).

Ten minutes a day with Quiztones and students will be amazed at how quickly their ear skills improve making them more aware of which instruments sound good together and those that aren’t.

Soundgym – https://www.soundgym.co/

For the student that is serious about becoming a sound engineer probably my favourite tool is this website. It’s not cheap, but the variety of tools you can use to help learn how to be better at EQ’ing, hearing compression, identifying balance and panning issues, etc is brilliant. The daily workout takes around 10 minutes and is basically all you need to do over a period of time to develop ‘golden ears’ for sound mixing.

A popular alternative that is worth looking into (but I haven’t used personally) is https://www.trainyourears.com

As we go through the changes for a new assessment system and we ‘reinvent’ how we teach and assess aural skills, these tools may be of great assistance to high school teachers and may be more engaging for some students than the ‘traditional’ methods.

32-bit recording

It is rare that in a particular year there is a huge standout product or piece of music technology equipment. While everything is always getting better and cheaper, often it is gradual improvements to things like recording software or microphones which make the life of a recording musician and composer easier in some way.

However, last year a new audio recorder came out that is particularly worth of mention. The Zoom F6.

Firstly, the basics: the Zoom F6 has six microphone inputs allowing you to record pretty much any kind of small ensemble. It is incredibly small (seriously, it’s much smaller than you would think by looking at pictures of it online). It records to SD card so if you are recording somewhere like the Big Sing, Rockquest or Chamber Music competition you can do recordings without having to also lug around a laptop.

However, what makes this portable audio stand out from the many other portable audio recorders on the market (and there are a lot of them) is the fact that it can record 32-bit floating point audio files. Why is this important? Well, in short, it means that you never have to worry about correctly setting the input or gain levels. It is physically impossible to record too quiet or too loud.

For anyone that has any experience with recording you’ll know that if you set the levels too high on your recording interface then you’ll get clipping or distortion. Working with student bands a common problem is setting your recording levels during their sound check or practice, but when it comes to the actual performance or recording they all of a sudden play twice as loud, distorting your audio signals.

This is no longer a problem with 32-bit audio recording. Here is a great example of someone demonstrating this with the smaller Zoom F3:

In the past we used to always record digital audio at 16-bit quality. This gave us a dynamic range of 96 dB. 24-bit audio quality gives us a dynamic range of 144 dB which is a massive improvement. However, with both of these formats we can never record over 0 dBFS, which is the clipping point. With 32-bit audio though, we have a dynamic range of 1528 dB, including the ability to go a massive 770 dB above 0 dBFS. The greatest difference in sound pressure level on Earth is only around 210 dB! See here for all the math.

I can’t really underestimate what a big deal this if for field recording. In the past while recording students performing outside, or even in situations where I’m recording tutorials in my classroom, there have been times that the input signal controls have accidentally been knocked making my tracks way too loud and distorted and ruining what we were trying to record (and often I only realise that after everyone has packed up and gone home and I’m sitting down to mix!). With 32-bit recorders this is no longer a concern.

To see the Zoom F6 in action here is a recording we made of some students performing at the top of the Port Hills at sunrise:

In this setup I had two microphones setup in a stereo ORTF arrangement, three microphones used as close mics spread out across the performers and the sixth input dedicated for the guitar DI box. The audio levels were all over the place at the time of recording but using the ‘sort of free’ recording software Reaper I was able to balance everything up nicely.

The microphones suffered terribly from wind noise so I had to use the excellent Izotope RX software to clean the tracks up.

So, if you do a lot of recording in different spaces, then I highly recommend you trial one of these units from your local music store.

Collaborative Composition between primary and secondary students

I want students to develop a love of learning, music and creation. Not just to bank NCEA credits. Therefore I deliberately get them to do tasks that are not assessed. They are pushed hard to focus on NCEA assessment in all their other subjects so they are very much in the habit of focusing on the results, and not the process.

My year 12 music students completed their two songs/compositions as required by NCEA by the end of term 2. As I did not want to stop creativity in my class just because we’d met the requirements for NCEA I decided to get them to do group compositions, but with a twist.

I got them to go to the year 3 class at St Andrew’s College and interview the students about their native birds inquiry. The year 3’s were in the process of discovering everything they could about New Zealand native birds (alive or extinct). They were learning about the their size, their habitat, their sounds and what are their main threats.

I divided my class of 14 students into four groups and put them with a group of year 3’s for half an hour. They laughed, sang and had a great time together. My students recorded the interviews on their phone, took pictures of the student artwork and generally gathered a lot of raw material with which they could go away and start writing songs about.

Task overview

I designed a simple overview for my students to help them with structuring their time which you can see here.

In each of the year 12 groups I made sure that there was someone in each group who had strengths in the following areas:

  • Lyric writing
  • Chord construction
  • Beat making/production

Throughout year 11 and 12 my students have all developed a solid understanding of:

  • Song structure
  • Using Logic or FL Studio for recording and beat making
  • What a melody should be like in verses and choruses
  • How to develop vocal harmonies
  • Chord construction
  • Developing instrumental hooks and counter melodies

Of course, all the students are stronger in some areas than others, but within the groups all the bases were covered. As my students have already written at least 4-5 songs/compositions they didn’t need to learn about the process. My job was to make sure they were staying focused, not spending too long on little things, and to help resolve conflict through questioning around their overall purpose.

Unfortunately due the COVID lockdown in term 3 I was not able to spend any time with the students analysing kids songs in general to help them understand the challenges writing for a young audience. My original intention was for my students to write songs that could be sung by the year 3’s in class. But with the loss of class time I decided to just let the students go for it and write the songs in any style they feel comfortable with.

All the groups worked well together for the most part but there were certainly times of tension and personality clashes. Which is great! I was hoping that would happen. The students were able to work through their issues and complete the job in spite of how difficult it was for them at times. This is the nature of collaboration! They learned that you may sometimes disagree, but you need to come up with a solution that meets the brief and deliver on time. And they did. I’m sure all teachers will see how many of the Key Competencies are being displayed through this process.

Here are the four songs that my students wrote. You are welcome to download them and share them with your classes.

Technology required to make this happen

St Andrew’s College is a BYOD school but when I have student collaborating I don’t allow them to use their own laptops for the main project file in case one of them is away sick or on a school trip. Therefore I use music department desktop and laptop computers.

Each computer is loaded with Apple’s Logic Pro and all the computers are sync’ed together with shared Dropbox folders. This ensures all their work is automatically backed up to the ‘cloud’ and I am always able to access their projects from my laptop. Halfway through the process we have a class review of each other’s projects and being able to access all their files from my laptop makes this a whole lot easier.

The students were set up in our studio, my office, my classroom and a practise room. Each group with an audio interface (Focusrite Scarlett Solo), a microphone (Shure SM58), headphones/speakers and a small MIDI keyboard (Novation Launchkey).

In each group the student who had strength with ‘beat making’ would have their own laptop to make the beat while the others are lyric writing, recording guitar/keys, etc. The ‘beat maker’ would construct the beat in sections and then import it to the main project computer once they were ready. This ensured people weren’t sitting around doing nothing.


Coming out of lockdown this was the best thing possible for my class. Students had just spent several weeks not interacting with real people, and doing mostly theory and research work online. I got the impression from some students that in some other subjects they were in a sense of panic about having to get through material for our upcoming Prelim exams. Students were really feeling the stress.

But by doing this collaborative and creative work students were really happy and calm. Once again music became their ‘safe place’ in the school day as they could relax and enjoy working with others. And ironically, I would assert they ended up with much high levels of learning and productivity than in any of their other classes who were rushing to get ready for exams.

In reflecting upon the process the students were all surprised at what they had achieved. They all knew there were things they would do differently and better next time, but they had a deep sense of satisfaction in producing such high quality tracks in such a short time period. They all recognised the benefits of collaborative composition and as we head into level 3 Songwriting and Composition they have a wonderful skill set and understanding of the compositional process that will serve them well.

The Best Free Recording and Mixing Software

As I write this New Zealand has been plunged into another mini lockdown. Auckland schools are closed for seven days, and the rest of the country is back to gatherings of no more than 100 people. While these lockdowns are frustrating, I believe most New Zealanders are willing to go through these short and sharp periods of inconvenience as it has shown to be effective at stamping out the virus in the community. I think 25,000+ people at the recent music festival “Electric Avenue” will attest to that. What other country is able to hold summer music festivals in 2021?

But because we have these times of uncertainty hanging over us, teachers and students are needing to find ways of continuing their learning and skill development without the resources of their music departments. During the nationwide level 3 and 4 lockdown in 2020 I found the following software to be really great at enabling students to continue composing and mixing from home. Everything listed below is free to download and works on Windows and Mac computers. Chromebooks are not an option for audio recording and mixing beyond the basic websites like Soundtrap and Bandlab. Just like you can’t edit video properly through a website, you can’t do higher end audio recording and mixing through the options available on Chromebooks.

In addition to the options below please see my recent blogs on free Orchestral sound libraries and free composition software.


I wish that Pro Tools First, the free version of the industry standard recording software was good, but it just seems so buggy and unreliable. And, just like they did with good old Pro Tools Free for Windows 98, AVID seem to have stopped providing any updates for it. Instead, the best option for a professional level recording platform is Reaper.

Reaper isn’t strictly free, but it has a fully functioning evaluation period, that never expires! So, if you try it and like it, I do encourage you to purchase an education licence (for a very small price) as I have. Reaper is generally considered to be a top tier Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) just like Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, Studio One and Reason. It is well supported by a very enthusiastic community and excellent tutorials on their own website. Students and teachers really can learn everything they need to know about it from YouTube.

Mixing plugins

All of the audio mixing plugins, such as EQs, compressors, delay and reverb that come with Reaper are all very good. But to be honest, they’re not very pretty and inspiring to work with. Instead here are some great options of mixing plugins that work inside Reaper once you’ve installed them on your computer.

TDR Slick EQ – while this may not be a fully parametric EQ, it sounds great and is easy to use. And when students are new to mixing, ease of use if the most important thing.

TDR Nova – this is a dynamic EQ, so might be a bit beyond the beginner user, but it looks amazing and sounds even better. It’s free so why not download it and give it a try?

TDR Kotelnikov Compressor – this is a beautiful sounding compressor which looks great as well.

Klanghelm MJUC Jr compressor – if the Kotelnikov is intimidating to use, here is a much simpler compressor to start working with. This is modelling on the classic LA2A style of compression where you only have two or three controls. These can be especially useful on evening out the dynamic changes in a vocal performance.

Valhalla Supermassive Delay – it’s amazing that this is free. Valhalla make some of the best reverbs and delays so it is wonderful they have released this excellent delay.

TAL Reverbs – Finding a good reverb is a bit tougher. The Valhalla Supermassive could act as a reverb in a pinch but really it might be worth investing in the Valhalla Reverb. I’d start with the Vintage Verb which is excellent and very reasonably priced. However for free options TAL offer a few different reverbs and I recommend getting them all. To start with go for TAL – Reverb 4.

Saturation and distortion – when recording on purely digital systems it can be harder making your tracks ‘glue’ together in a balanced way when compared to mixing on old analog systems using tape. Something that can really help make your mixes sound warmer and work well together is to provide very subtle distortion, known as saturation. This is what naturally happens when you increase the gain or input on an analog mixing console, and when you record onto tape. We can emulate this in the digital realm using saturation plugins. There are many excellent options now, but an excellent free one is the Klanghelm IVGI. A word of warning, don’t over do this! If you hear a big noticeable difference when you put this on a track and raise it’s levels then you’ve probably used too much. Put it on each of your tracks but in barely perceptible amounts. The combination of putting this on 12 or more tracks in you mix will have the overall effect of making everything ‘fit’ a bit better, and sound warmer.

If you want to explore other options for free effects and software instruments Landr have put together a great blog which is well worth reading. However, at over 200 options it’s a little overwhelming. What I’ve listed above has worked well for me and my students.

Free Orchestral Sample Library from Spitfire Audio

I have spent a lot of time trying to find free composition and mixing software for my students. While audio software has never been cheaper (Logic Pro is only around $250 which is a bargain considering I paid over $1000 for it when I first got it… and even then it was worth every cent), I am constantly trying to find good options for students that don’t cost anything.

Earlier in the year I wrote about free composition software highlighting free orchestral sounds from Project Sam, the Spitfire Labs, Waveform by Tracktion and Native Instruments Kontakt Start. These are all excellent solutions for composing on a laptop. But Spitfire have now just released what is probably one of the most amazing deals I’ve ever seen for composition software.

Last year they released their excellent BBC Symphony Orchestra sample library. It was quickly becoming one of the ‘go to’ sample libraries for orchestral music composers. However, it’s price is likely out of the range of high schools and students. So it’s quite exciting that a few weeks ago Spitfire released a version of this for only $49 USD, or you can get it for free if you fill out a survey for them and are prepared to wait two weeks for a download code.

I am able to afford the $49, so I went ahead and got the new “BBC Discover” immediately. Here are my first impressions.

This sample library sounds great! The sounds are the same sounds as found in the more expensive BBCSO Core and Professional library. But you have far fewer articulations, mic positions and general adaptability. Are you going to use these sounds for a professional film score? Short answer, no. But for high school students trying to make film style orchestrations and compositions, it is perfect. In fact, it’s probably better than the expensive versions as it’s a very small download package (around 200Mb instead of many gigabytes of the ‘full’ versions) and the sounds and articulations that are provided are generally all that the average student composer will need. It is not bloated with features you might only use 2% of the time, everything provided is easily accessible and thoroughly useful.

One of the things I love most about this sample library is that Spitfire Audio are supporting it with an amazing page of resources.  When you get a sample library, it can take forever to setup an orchestral template so that it’s actually usable. There are some kind people that share their templates on forums, and websites like Babylon Waves have sprung up with useful articulation files for Logic Pro and other DAW’s that make these overwhelming sample libraries usable.

So it is especially great that Spitfire Audio have created a page of resources that include freely downloadable templates, as well as orchestration tutorial videos to help your students get the most out of the sample library.

It is especially great that The Page contains the DAW sessions used in the videos like the one above are also available for download.

What makes a sample library replicate the real sound of an orchestra is by providing a variety of articulations. The Celli samples (for example) provide four articulations: long, spiccato, pizzicato and tremolo. For the majority of student composers this will provide all the articulations they are likely to need. I know I can’t complain (because the software is essentially free), but I would have loved to have seen legato articulations provided as the ‘long’ articulation can feel a bit clunky when trying to move smoothly between notes. You can overcome this somewhat by overlapping the MIDI notes in your DAW’s piano roll, but they won’t sound as effective as proper legato patches.

You really shouldn’t waste anymore time reading this blog! Head to Spitfireaudio.com and either purchase this or apply for a free download. This really is the best free orchestral sample library available and is a must have for any composers that wish to use orchestral instruments in their compositions or songs.

Lessons learned from a week of teaching in COVID19

Over the last week and a half in New Zealand we have been on a nationwide shutdown. All non-essential services, businesses and schools have been shut down, with only supermarkets, pharmacies and the health services remaining functioning in our country.

State schools had their holidays brought forward two weeks but many Independent schools like St Andrew’s College where I teach, have decided to stay open through the rest of term 1 and use online learning.

We are very fortunate in that we have a highly capable and hard working IT support team. They have been spending most of this year working hard to put the infrastructure in place to support teachers to continue to work remotely. As we are a Microsoft Office 365 school (which always means I feel a little awkward considering I’m an Apple Distinguished Educator) we have built our online learning delivery around Microsoft Teams.

I have really enjoyed the portal that Teams has become. We previously used Moodle in our school, and I have to say that Teams is a lot more user friendly and easy to manage. Using Teams (linking in with many teacher’s resources they already had in OneNote) meant that most teachers at StAC have been trained to deliver online lessons in the following way:

  • Teachers are to pre-record a five minute ‘lesson’ using Teams and Microsoft Stream. Teachers send this video to students in advance of the class for them to watch before the lesson.
  • Teachers then meet up with students online through Teams for a ‘class’. The teacher will explain concepts and answer questions, and then supervise students while they spend the rest of that 50-minute lesson working through what the teachers has asked them to do.
  • Teachers can set assignments using Teams where students can do their work and submit online using Teams. Teams is integrated with the anti-plagiarism service TurnItIn to verify student work.

While there are many variations to this, that is basically what StAC teachers are trying to deliver, in a perfect world. Some of the issues that have cropped up this week though are students having issues with wifi/internet access at home, teachers spending the whole 50-minute period talking at students and not giving them work time (leading to students becoming stressed about the amount of work they have to do), teacher confidence and experience delivering in a new format, and students not having their webcams turned on and not paying attention to the lesson.

While I should stress these are some issues, overwhelmingly the response from students, parents and teachers this week is that our first week and a half of online learning has been a huge success. Our Rector described the staff’s willingness to continue to deliver quality lessons in this way as a highlight of her career.

However, to deliver quality lessons in music I have used Teams extensively, but deviated with some other processes and software. Here are some of the things I’ve learned this week which hopefully can help other music teachers in NZ and the world who may be just starting out with delivering online lessons.

Zoom vs Teams


As mentioned above, our school are using Teams to deliver video conferencing needs for online lessons. However, the downside of Teams is that it only lets you have four people on the screen at once, and you can’t share audio from laptops if you are Mac users. As most of my music students use Apple Mac’s (after all, Mac are clearly the industry standard when it comes to music creative professionals) this created serious problems for when we were doing class sharing of compositions.

The end of term is a very important time for my classes in sharing and celebrating their work with each other. See a previous blog post where I discuss how this is the #1 tip I have for raising the quality of student compositions and songs. For us to make this happen we had to move over to Zoom. I advised my school IT team about it, and while they want everyone at the school to stay on the same platform for simplicity and security reasons, they could see how important this was for us.

We would start our lesson in Teams (the Teams calendar is how we join lessons that are scheduled in student timetables), and I would post a link in our Teams chat for students to link over to Zoom. The first time I did this with each class it took less than 10 minutes for all students to successfully move over to Zoom. Most students, who had no prior experience with Zoom, completed the task within 90 seconds.

Initially the link I setup for students required them to install the Zoom software on their laptops. Once students had the software they could join Zoom meetings by just clicking on the link I sent them. However, later in the week I came across a setting in Zoom which means the meeting will open in Zoom in a browser with no requirement to download the software, so this might be a better option for teachers looking to use Zoom with classes for the first time.

I won’t go further into how to use Zoom here, including locking lessons and using the waiting room function so that trolls can’t join it, as you can search the internet for lots of articles about using it safely.

The other thing I really love about Zoom is that I can see the whole class on the screen at once, instead of just four people that Teams has. Our school IT have required that students join video conferencing sessions with their webcam turned off by default (for privacy and safety reasons), but once I’ve told students to make sure they look appropriate (i.e. not in their PJs!) they should turn on their webcams. It is MUCH easier to teach students when I can see their reactions.

My main caution I have about getting students to share their work on Zoom is that it is a bit tricky to setup for some students. The #1 issue is the students forgot to click the box about sharing computer audio when they started sharing, and the #2 issue was figuring out how to get their music software to send audio to Zoom. Some students managed to get this happening quickly, but others couldn’t get it working at all. So while I will still use Zoom for students sharing their work with the class (it’s great for students to see how their GarageBand session looks and is arranged) at the end of the week I had students send me their recordings via Dropbox and I played everything for the class from my laptop.

Dropbox File Requests


Our school is now mostly using Teams for requesting assignments from students. However, I have found many issues with this process I won’t go into here, but the most major one is that the file size limit of this feature is too small for student recording projects.

Well before our school became an Office 365 school I have been using Dropbox in a variety of ways. But one of the best features, is that any folder I have on my laptop (in the Dropbox folder) lets me right click it and generate a link which students can use to upload work to that folder, of any file size.

This has made it very easy for students to send me evidence of their work they have completed at the end of the day or the week. I have asked them take pictures or make a video on their phone of their workbooks and upload those. They have also uploaded videos of them performing their songs they’ve written, or sent me MP3’s of the beats they’ve made.

Music Rehearsals

We quickly discovered we can’t rehearse together on Zoom as the lag is just too much for us to be able to play in time. So what we did with our Big Band was to get them to record their part at home along to a metronome click and they sent me an mp3. I then mixed the tracks together into a rough form so that we could then do a ‘rehearsal’ where we analysed how everyone was playing. This was great for the students as they were able to see (and hear in isolation through soloing tracks):

  • Who is always playing in front of the beat and rushing
  • Who is consistently behind the beat
  • That the bass player wasn’t keeping his sound even on every note
  • That the guitarist and the drummer’s ride cymbal are staying solid and in time with each other.
  • That some musicians could play the starts and ends of phrases well, but went to mush in the middle of each phrase.

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 10.02.26 AM

No doubt this analysis and ‘exposure’ is hard for teenage musicians to hear, but they are definitely more aware of the areas they need to work on to create a cohesive ensemble sound.

You can hear their performance of “Groovin High” here.

(I’ll happily post a new recording later in the year once they are performing it a lot better!).


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For my year 10 option music class we took their group performances they had been preparing, and got them to do a similar task to the Jazz Big Band. But instead we used Soundtrap.com and the collaboration features.

I pre-loaded a recording into Soundtrap for them to play along to, and they each logged into Soundtrap.com from home and recorded their part. Using the chat feature in Soundtrap they could stay in contact with each other and discuss the challenges and difficulties. However, it has proven to keep them engaged with each other, and still working on their practical performance part of the course.

Learning Ideas Resources

You know I couldn’t leave these out…

Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 10.48.31 AMI have worked through countless weekends, holidays, and early mornings over the last 15 years to produce these resources, and in the last five years have been producing and converting all of our resources to the ‘Flipped Classroom’ format. As a result, adapting to online learning has been rather painless.

learning ideas logoI have all lessons for a course (such as Recording or MIDI, Score reading, Songwriting, etc) pre-recorded, with workbooks setup for students. I haven’t had to pre-record any lessons this week, I’ve just met up with students and told them which part of the workbook they should be working on, which has it’s own lesson videos. With all my students on personalised courses, this is kind of what I’m used to doing on a daily basis anyway. For some students that need further help, or extension, I then spend that online ‘lesson’ with them helping them out.

So, if you’re looking for the easiest way possible of running classes online, please look through our resources at https://www.learningideas.org/shop

I’m keen to hear what your top tips for online learning have been. So, please comment below.

Thanks for reading 🙂


Free composition software to keep you going through COVID19

A lot of teachers in New Zealand and around the world this past week are grappling with how to deliver courses online. At Learning Ideas we have a lot of resources for Songwriting, Music Technology, Ear Training and Music Theory that are ‘flipped’ resources, they have videos and workbooks that show your students much of what they need to know on a certain topic.

However, when it comes to composing at home there are now some amazing tools for students. Ableton Live, Logic Pro and others are offering free 90 day licences for fully functional ‘pro’ software so it’s worth looking into those options.  The Verge have collated a lot of the free and trial options here. Well worth a read.

However, I’m more interested in what options are out there for students and teachers beyond the 90 days. Fortunately, there are now lots of amazing recording and composition tools available for free. So, if you like free stuff that’s awesome quality, here is my pick of the best free software available.

Project Sam The Free Orchestra

The Free Orchestra

Project Sam is one of my favourite Orchestral and Jazz sample libraries. I use their sounds in my film composition work all the time. Their full sample libraries are very expensive (although they do offer educational discounts) so this is exciting news that they have released some of their best sounds for free.

Spitfire Audio Labs


My other favourite orchestral sample library company is Spitfire Audio. They release a lot of their best sounds for free in dedicated players. Super high quality, and sound amazing. Head over to their Labs website to download them.

Native Instruments Komplete Start


No other company offers (in my opinion) the range of virtual instruments, effects and sample libraries that Native Instruments does. For anyone that can afford it, I highly recommend purchasing their Komplete library… but for students that probably can’t afford it, you get an amazing range of instruments and sample libraries from their Komplete Start library.

Waveform by Tracktion


All those sample libraries and virtual instruments are great, but they’re useless without a Digital Audio Workstation to play them in. As mentioned above, Ableton and Logic are for 90 days, but students might like to try this free DAW instead. There is the ‘free to evaluate’ software Reaper (which is incredible and definitely considered ‘pro’ software), but that is quite hard for a lot of people to get their head around when it comes to MIDI instruments. Waveform Free by contrast, seems very easy to setup and it has many wonderful getting started tutorials on YouTube.

Other options?

There are so many free options for technology and composition. The ones I’ve mentioned above are my favourite, but why do you write in the comments anything you think I’ve left out.  Yes, I know I’ve left off Soundtrap.com 🙂

Mixing a large scale production

Last term our senior musical was “Parade” by Jason Robert Brown. This was an exceptionally complex show, so we wanted to make a good recording of it for our archival purposes (we are unable to share the video for copyright reasons).

The live sound desk in our theatre is a Midas M32, which enables us to plug a laptop in via USB and record all 32 channels on the desk to separate tracks in Logic Pro, so we can do a better mix of it for video later. We had 23 radio mics and 9 channels for the band.

Watch this video to see my overview before reading my workflow below.

Mixing a school production

My workflow for working with a Logic project of this size is to do the following:

  • Colour code all tracks – lead parts go in yellow, girls ensemble in pink and boys ensemble in blue.
  • Create a basic mix for the band – balance faders, corrective EQ, compression if necessary. I won’t do any reverb on them as there is so much leakage from other mics, and the room mic I have at the back reverb is possibly unnecessary.
  • I will create aux channels – one for the boys and one for the girls. This allows me to control the overall volume of the girls with one fader and the boys with a different fader.
  • Do a basic mix for each vocal mic. This will usually involve a high pass filter to get rid of all low frequency leakage into the mics from the band. Then apply corrective EQ to get rid of any nasty frequencies (usually honky mid frequencies). I will then place mild compression on each vocal mic to reduce dynamic differences, making the voices easier to balance and making their words clearer and easier to understand. At this stage I am often mixing each vocal mic in solo. This is often discouraged in most mixing scenarios but here it’s necessary to clean up the sound of each vocal mic. We can do further fine tuning of the tracks later.
  • I will create aux channel strips for reverb and delay, which means I can route any signal to those tracks to create ambience (if necessary).
  • I will then work on a song where the full ensemble is singing (usually the finale) to create a basic full ensemble mix. This involves balancing faders, and then maybe some fine tuning of the EQ on some voices to make them blend. I am a big fan of putting a large amount of compression on the aux bus of these groups of singers – it really does ‘glue’ the sound of an ensemble ‘choral’ sound together.
  • Now, at this point it’s where I get tricky. For each of the important characters I will then duplicate their tracks twice. One of the duplicates I’ll mix it for how they sound when lead singing (usually a bit more reverb) and for the second duplicate I’ll mix it for when they are speaking dialogue (probably no reverb at all). The point of having separate tracks for the separate ‘roles’ of each character is to reduce the need for automation of volume and effects. This way, I can just chop up their regions in the arrange window and drag them to the appropriate track and in theory, they should sound appropriate.

And that’s basically it. With regards to actual mixing, I spend a comparatively small amount of time doing that. Instead, I spend a long time editing – deleting the unused regions (i.e. when people are backstage but their track has recorded everything they said) and then chopping up the main characters and copying them to their ensemble, lead or dialogue tracks.

Watch the video above, and you’ll see how I do it.  Feel free to send me comments about how you think this process could be further refined.

My #1 tip for improving student compositions

web banner mic shutterstock_664134517.jpgHave students play their compositions in front of the rest of the class.

And make the students all comment on each other’s work with something they like, and something they recommend doing to take it to the next level (comments must be specific and referred to the elements of music, no ‘wishy washy’ comments allowed).

There… simple (feel free to stop reading now and do this. But if you want to know why it’s my #1 tip please keep reading).

Since I’ve started making students share their music to the rest of the class I’ve noticed the following things happen:

  • The quality of music in term 2 increases a huge amount compared to term 1.
  • Students who were not putting much effort into their composing suddenly realise they’re behind others in the class and work harder so as not to embarrass themselves
  • If one student does something pretty clever (such as the creation of a hook in a song, or their use of reverb in GarageBand, or a chord progression on the guitar, etc) the other students get to see it in action, and are free to borrow that idea for their works.
  • When many students provide similar feedback to the composer the composer then gets to see how their works are being perceived by their ‘audience’, and can refine their works accordingly.


For this to work, you must have set some clear expectations around the culture of your classroom. Students need to understand that they must always be prepared to share their work, no matter what stage they are at. The song will never be ‘perfect’, it will never be complete, there are always things to improve. So students should be ready to share their work, even though it’s incomplete and they may not be too happy with it.

When classmates comment on the work the comments must ALWAYS be helpful and constructive. No criticisms or negative language. If there is something that someone doesn’t like, they need to frame it in a way of identifying an issue, and what they would do to solve the issue or improve the work.

And the people receiving the constructive feedback need to remember that there is nothing personal about the comments. They are talking about the work, not them as people or them as composers and songwriters.


One of the delightful side effects of this process, is that students go to each other and offer their assistance.

I recently had a student the composed and produced an amazing song in Logic, but she lacked the ability to programme a good drum part, and as a result the track never really had the emphasis that it needed in the chorus sections.

However, a few days later she resubmitted her song to me and it had an amazing drum part. One of the boys in the class went and helped her out and make a track with her. This is how the music industry works and I couldn’t be happier!

Ignore NCEA

Seriously, I mean it. Don’t teach to assessment!

Every student needs to make their songs and compositions better, but not because NCEA says so. This means your weak students are focusing on developing their compositional skills, and your super advanced students aren’t limiting themselves to NCEA or curriculum levels, but are pushing themselves to be the best they can be.

My students aren’t allowed to ask, “what do I need to do to get excellence”. For me the question is irrelevant. I challenge them to produce something they can put on Soundcloud or Spotify and be proud of. It needs to be in keeping with the genre they are composing in.


I usually dedicated 3-4 periods each term to this process. And since then my student compositions have never been better.